Christmas Eve on the farm

Christmas Eve is the most mystical and magical night of the year. On that night, the animals can talk, just as they did on that night long ago in the manger where Jesus was born and the light of love came to the world.

In the farmhouse on Route 20 east of Fredonia, Christmas Eve commenced with oyster stew. Mother heated the milk in a large soup pot, stirring in butter, salt, and pepper while the oysters warmed in another pot. When the oysters and milk were mixed together, the aroma and flavor were heavenly. Once we humans were served, Poonxsley Cat, all grace and focus and the only one in the house who actually liked oysters, got to scoop them out of the pot with her paw and munch them down, one by one. We dropped handfuls of Nabisco oyster crackers into our own hot stew. They soaked and plumped to a perfect balance of crunch and mush.

After supper Dad drove us up the hill to Grandma and Grandpa Merrill’s house in Shumla. Snowflakes lit by the headlight beams of the 1955 Bel Air flew at the windshield like a million tiny white arrowheads out of the night sky. We threw our weight forward so the tires could grab onto the cinders on the snow-packed road.

Aunts and uncles and cousins came to Grandma’s from Fredonia, Forestville, and Silver Creek. Grandma always had the tastiest ham on Christmas Eve. The men stood around the kitchen table, peeling pieces from the platter and talking about how good it tasted and who had gotten a deer that year and how many points it had and how much it weighed and the one that got away. That year’s new baby came for his or her first Christmas Eve at Grandma’s, nestled in the arms of the newest proud Grandpa. Jokes about there being “life in the old man yet” flew over our heads. One year the 20-cup company coffee pot exploded in the kitchen, spraying grounds on the ceiling and the walls and the Cheerios box sitting on top of the tall corner cupboard.

I played Christmas carols on the piano while others sang at the top of their lungs. Dad’s favorites were “It Came upon a Midnight Clear” and “Silver Bells.” The house was cozy, the Christmas tree lit against the cold dark night. When boy cousins pinched my arms, I went to sit among the adults at the dining room table. I picked at ham, olives, nuts and oranges as I listened to their conversation.

After awhile we left to go back down the hill to Grandma and Grandpa Stonefoot’s house in Laona. The house was fragrant with the aroma of German coffee cake baking in the wood stove. All the Stonefoot aunts and uncles were there. Dad and Uncle Lester fought over the piece of coffee cake with the most raisins. The adults played cards at the dining room table while we sat beneath in a forest of legs, lulled by laughter and easy voices. In the parlor was the tree, glowing with bubble lights and fragile glass ornaments that had been carried from Germany on the boat a long time ago. We played Santa, finding presents for everyone under the tree and delivering them with a Merry Christmas Ho-Ho-Ho.

At last, sleepy and happy, we went home to light the lights on our own tree, always “the most beautiful tree ever.” We cut down a tree on a friend’s farm over near Stockton after Thanksgiving every year. It stood in a pan of water in the back room off the kitchen while the snow melted off. After a day or two, Dad brought it in and stood it in the old Flintstone diaper pail left from our babyhoods, packing the trunk with dirt to help the tree stand up. Mother got the lights and decorations out. We listened to Christmas music on the radio while we trimmed the tree and Mother baked cutouts, getting them ready to decorate. I arranged the creche in a special spot under the tree, telling myself the Christmas story as I set Mary and Joseph on either side of the manger where the baby Jesus lay in swaddling clothes, a halo on his head; the Wise Men on one side, the shepherds on the other; the animals circling up around the people, the star of the East shining over the shed roof and the angelic host hovering over everything and everyone.

“I Remember Mama” was an old-time TV drama about a Swedish family who lived in San Francisco in the early 1900s. In an episode that played every year at Christmas, Mama and Papa told Lars and Dagmar that there was one magical time in the whole entire year when the animals could talk, and that was at midnight on Christmas Eve. For years on Christmas Eve, I went down to the barn – the manger on our farm and in the heartspace where memory lives. I walked down through the snow at a few minutes before midnight, after everyone else was in bed, to listen to the animals.

The snow had stopped falling so the stars shone fierce in the hard cold sky. My breath hung in puffs in the frozen air. I pushed the door back enough to slip inside then closed it behind me to keep a degree of warmth in. The barn-manger space glowed with starlight shining through the windows and reflecting off the snow. Poonxsley and the other cats, father-and-son hound dogs Spotty and Tippy, and Smokey the horse greeted me with soft animal sounds, seeming to understand my coming hence. I broke the ice in their water bowls and checked their food, talking to them softly. I apologized for disturbing their sleep and asked how they were getting along. “Are you warm enough? Do you need another blanket or more straw?” I felt and smelled the comfort of their warm animal bodies and rubbed everyone’s ears.

At midnight I crouched to be among them on the wood plank floor so I wouldn’t miss a word. They talked to me in the language of love: This is how to forgive the failings of the year gone by; here is courage for the new one on its way.

Rita Anne Stonefoot

Fredonia High School Class of 1964